Alison Taufer

title.none: Brown, Christian Humanism in the Late English Morality Plays (Alison Taufer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0011.006 00.11.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alison Taufer, California State University of Los Angeles,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Brown, Dorothy. Christian Humanism in the Late English Morality Plays. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000. Pp. iv, 197. 49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01701-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.11.06

Brown, Dorothy. Christian Humanism in the Late English Morality Plays. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000. Pp. iv, 197. 49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01701-7.

Reviewed by:

Alison Taufer
California State University of Los Angeles

In her carefully documented study of an often neglected Renaissance theatrical tradition, Dorothy Brown demonstrates how the English morality plays of the late sixteenth century brought the Christian humanistic ideas of Thomas More and his circle to the public stage. Using evidence from these later moralities, Brown argues that Christian humanism, the product of an aristocratic and intellectual court culture, had become an integral part of popular culture by the end of the century. While Brown's thesis is an interesting and valid one, the methods that she employs to support her claims do little to illuminate the cultural significance of these texts.

Brown focuses on a select group of morality plays written and performed between 1550 and 1600, a time during which the morality genre itself was giving way to the dramatic innovations of the later Elizabethan period. While Christian humanism was a central component of early sixteenth century humanist drama, which was typically performed for a private audience, the morality plays of the public theater became a primary vehicle for transmitting humanist doctrine to the general population by the century's end. Brown limits her study to eight dramatic texts that she feels demonstrate evidence of the continuing influence of early humanistic thought on Elizabethan life: William Wager's The Longer Thou Livest the More Fool Thou Art (1559) and The Trial of Treasure (1567), Ulpian Fulwell's Like Will to Like Quoth the Devil to the Collier (1568), George Wapull's The Tide Tarrieth No Man (1576), Thomas Lupton's All for Money (1577), Nathaniel Woods' Conflict of Conscience (1581), and Robert Wilson's The Three Ladies of London (1581) and The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1588). Brown argues that these plays present social, political, economic, or ethical problems that act as deterrents to the humanist conception of the ideal life, and in the "speculum principis" tradition, propose ways by which society can be directed toward moral improvement.

Brown begins her discussion by providing a somewhat brief if generalized sketch of English Renaissance humanism. She focuses on humanist thought of the early Tudor period, specifically that of More, Erasmus, Colet, Elyot, and Ascham. Her primary aim is to depict how the humanists' optimistic belief in the efficacy of education to improve and transform human nature and society was evidenced in vernacular writings and upon the popular stage well into the later part of the sixteenth century. She argues that humanist ideas continued to thrive during the late 1500's, filtering down from the intellectual and cultural elite to the general population, and indeed reached their height of popular currency by the end of the century, despite the advent of a growing pessimism.

In her overview of English Renaissance literary forms, Brown focuses on medieval literary elements that continued to be relevant throughout the sixteenth century, such as allegory and certain topoi. She argues that despite the influence of classical and continental models and ideas, the continued importance of medieval forms, specifically native dramatic forms, points to the importance of the morality play as a literary genre within the general context of English Renaissance literature. Brown refers to documentation that until 1585, the morality play, with its medieval features, dominated English drama long after the classical impulse had transformed other native literary forms. For example, out of 79 plays published between 1557 and 1590, 25 were moralities and nine others had morality features. Brown argues that despite their roots in early native dramatic traditions, the later morality plays focused on humanist ideas of social reform, education, religion, and government. This was a distinct move away from the concerns of the earlier morality plays, which emphasized personal salvation. "Older moralities had been basically concerned with viewing from a religious standpoint the passage of man through life on his way to another kingdom . . . . [T]he belated moralities, though having much to say on living the godly life, subordinated the spiritual interest to that of the morality of the world" (99). Brown demonstrates how these later moralities generally follow the dramatic pattern of the earlier religious moralities in their depiction of the human soul's struggle with vice, fall, and eventual recovery (or damnation); however, while the earlier moralities are primarily concerned with the soul's struggle to overcome evil and the temptations of the physical world as it journeys towards heaven, the later plays demonstrate how humanity may live a joyful, virtuous and fulfilling life in this world while preparing for the next. In the earlier morality plays there is special emphasis on the fleeting quality of time and the inevitability of human suffering. The later moralities of the Renaissance focus on choice, frequently supporting the humanistic idea of the active involvement of human agency in life's events. Suffering and death also occur in the later plays, but the progress to the grave and to redemption or damnation is not given the dramatic emphasis of the early plays. The plots of the later plays are more likely to be concerned with human choices on earth that result in benefits or punishments in this world before the final judgment.

Because they follow the general dramatic pattern of the early plays, these later moralities do not reflect English humanist thought concerning concepts of form derived from classical theory, although Brown believes that they parallel the writings of the humanist in style, thematic message, and sometimes language. Humanist influence appears in the ideas that they express about humans and their relationship to their society. Brown's discussion of the later Renaissance moralities glosses over these plays' relationship to the Tudor interludes of the earlier sixteenth century, an odd omission, given that these plays shared the same humanistic themes. The later moralities that the author discusses were certainly not the first plays to use the dramatic form of the morality play to voice concerns over educational, political, or ethical issues. Brown's study would benefit from a more detailed analysis of the links between these two very similar forms instead of concentrating on how the later moralities deviate from the earlier ones.

The rest of the book is devoted to examples of how the plays that Brown has chosen for her study exemplify various aspects of humanist thought. Brown argues that while these particular moralities reflect the social and economic concerns of the later sixteenth century, their response to these concerns tend to reproduce the views on theology, economics, and statecraft held by the early English humanists. Brown describes how the later moralities responded to the major social and economic changes of the day, specifically the breaking up of the estates and the perceived decline in hospitality. In other words, although Brown believes that these dramas constitute a "theater of commitment" for reform, many of the solutions that they propose reflect a nostalgia for an earlier, lost way of life. Brown claims that "the broader concerns in the later moralities were generally those of sins and abuses detrimental to man and society and were not focused specifically on religious dogma," yet she includes references to other late sixteenth-century morality plays that deal specifically with issues of religious reform (97). She also mentions instances in her study's selected plays that deal with theological controversy, pointing out the attack on Catholics and German Protestants in The Three Ladies of London and parody of Catholic ritual in Like Will to Like.

In the humanist tradition, the later moralities championed reason as the primary method through which humans might withstand temptation, maintain self-control, turn from evil, and know God. Mixing realism with the traditional allegory also typifies the later moralities, although such mixing can also be seen in the earlier Tudor interlude. Brown argues that later moralities, such as The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, with their increased realism and interest in relations between the sexes, point toward the romantic comedy of later drama. Brown also notes how the influence of humanism can be seen in the increasing secularization of the morality form as it began to reveal a heightened concern with ethical, social, and political matters at the expense of metaphysical ones. Yet, as mentioned earlier, such concerns also appear in the earliest Tudor interludes such as Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres (1497). Perhaps a greater emphasis on material wealth would typify the later moralities, although this would hardly seem attributable to humanist influence. For example, Like Will to Like points out the snares a virtuous citizen must learn to avoid in order to reap "great benefits and commodities" in this world as well as spiritual blessings in the next. Brown also notes how in The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, the possession of gold and silver is not bad in itself, although the author criticizes their wrong use as bribes, in seeking preferments and in trying to lure others into vice.

Christian Humanism in the Late English Morality Plays contains some intriguing observations about an often overlooked period of English drama, but upon completing the book, the reader senses that most of what the author argues has all been stated before. While Brown is obviously very knowledgeable in her area of study, she relies heavily on other scholars' readings of the plays rather than venturing to propose her own. She devotes two chapters to setting up the social, literary, and philosophical contexts of the later moralities, but instead of offering any real analysis of the interaction between the texts and their cultural milieu when she finally turns her attention to the dramas, she simply points to specific passages that illustrate humanist concepts as she summarizes the plays' plots. Her bibliography is ample, but not particularly up-to-date. Over two-thirds of her secondary critical sources were published before 1970, and she tends to employ such outdated paradigms as "The Great Chain of Being" in her discussion of humanist ideas. Given the re-visioning of early modern culture that has typified Renaissance research over the last twenty years, the question arises as to why Brown does not incorporate more contemporary scholarship into her discussion of the morality plays and why her work is so dependent on criticism from the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's. Brown's study would serve nicely as an introductory text for an undergraduate class, but there is little that is new here for scholars of medieval or Renaissance drama.